As our taxi/van was pulling out of our hotel, the driver stopped and picked up another guy standing in the road. They were obviously friends, since the new guy calmly opened the door and got in the front seat, and the two started talking. Well, maybe talking is too weak a word. They were arguing—with vigor.
We were headed for the small town of Red Hook on St. Thomas so we could catch the ferry over to St. John. It was our last day on the islands, and we were hoping to find the sea turtles. We’d already tried going to Virgin Gorda and Norman Island, but hadn’t had any luck. And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s going to the Virgin Islands and not getting to swim with sea turtles. It’s unacceptable.
Christopher Columbus named the Virgin Islands when he found them on his lesser known second voyage to the new world in 1493. He named them Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Virgenes, which you will know, if you paid attention in Mrs. Edwards’s Spanish class at Mason High School (1975-76), means Saint Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins. This would also make a good title for a horror movie, which is the only kind of movie it could possibly be.
The story is that Ursula was a British princess who, in 383, was on her way to marry her future husband, a fellow named Conan Meriadoc of Armorica, and she had 11,000 virgin handmaidens with her. Why 11,000, I have no idea. Maybe that was just the way she traveled.
On the way, she decided to make a pilgrimage across Europe, which turned out to be a mistake. When the girls got to Cologne, they found it occupied by a bunch of Huns who, being Huns, beheaded all of them except Ursula, whom they shot with an arrow. So it’s no wonder nobody liked Huns back then. I don’t particularly care for them now.
Anyway, for some reason, the islands reminded Chris of Ursula and her girlfriends, so that’s what he named them. And he did it in Spanish, presumably because Queen Esmeralda of Spain was paying the bill. She financed the voyage by rigging the Spanish PowerBall lottery.
One of these islands was named Virgin Gorda. Still is. On the northwestern side of Virgin Gorda is a place called The Baths, and it’s a series of coves full of perfect water and perfect sand and perfect huge boulders. It may very well be the prettiest island cove in the world, and if someone would be willing to finance a trip to check out all the others, just to make sure, I’d be happy to clear my schedule.
Jocelynn and I had signed on for a trip to The Baths at Virgin Gorda earlier in the week, and the boat Island Time had picked us up from St. Thomas. I checked right away, and found that no one called the captain ‘Skipper,’ and there was no first mate named Gilligan. The captain’s name was Doug, and he let me drive the boat.
Just kidding. But Captain Doug did answer a lot of questions, since I stood next to him most of the way, and he couldn’t avoid me, since he had to stay at the helm (that’s the steering wheel). We passed right by Kenny Chesney’s house, which is on top of one of the islands there. I waved, but I’m not sure he saw me.
After visiting The Baths, we stopped on the way back to snorkel at Norman Island, which has some neat caves you can swim into. Those caves are supposedly what give Robert Louis Stephenson the idea for Treasure Island, a novel which is almost as popular as my book. At least at my mom’s house.
But there were no sea turtles, so on our last day we were headed to St. John to snorkel the bays there, and got into the middle of the St. Thomas version of a presidential debate between our taxi driver and his friend. My wife and I sat quietly, but when we got to the ferry, I asked the two fellows how long they’d been married. I figured they would either laugh or kill us both. They laughed, so we went to St. John.
And finally, on our last day, in a beautiful little cove called Maho Bay, we found sea turtles. They ranged from two to three feet long, and they pretty much ignored us. They were grazing on sea grass on the bottom of the bay in about eight feet of water, and once in a while they would swim to the surface for a breath of air, ignore us some more, and go back to eating grass.
The best way I can describe the turtles is – majestic. Never having been so close to any endangered species before, I have to say this was a big thrill. Well, it was for us. The turtles didn’t seem to get much out of it.
If you ever get down to the Virgin Islands, go to Maho Bay on the north side of St. John and look for the sea turtles. And if you get over to Norman Island, the treasure may still be there. We never found it . . .
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who promises this is the last column about the Virgin Islands. Write to him at [email protected].